Have you longed to learn dressage with your gaited horse, yet have a trail horse that detests arena work?
Not all horses are wired the same. That includes my friend’s naturally gaited horse Lady. My friend asked me to work with Lady and see if I could bring out a smooth gait—something between the dog walk and a hard bouncy trot.
I began riding Lady in the arena, because that’s how I’ve introduced dressage to all of the horses I’ve ridden over the years.
Lady is a marvelous trail horse, and I quickly discovered that she didn’t understand the purpose of repetitive 20-meter circles without a change of scenery!
Instead of fighting with her, I took Lady to her happy place—the trail. And that’s where we worked on our gaited dressage. We used natural obstacles to maneuver around such as trees and the fire pit. Then we would leg yield from one side of the path to the other, followed by a soft halt, gentle and slow rein back, to a walk, and then transition to her easy gait for a few strides before transitioning back to a walk.
Changing up the requests along the way did three things:
1) Instead of being a passenger, I became an active participant in our relationship,
2) It gave Lady a reason to stay dialed in to me instead of relying on her fight and flight instincts.
3) Working together developed a partnership of trust.
While on the trail Lady began to ride the elements of a low level dressage test, and she seemed to enjoyed herself. Come to think of it, so did I. Our ride became a dance; a partnership. Lady became more relaxed, more balanced, and in more rhythm. She began to listen to me more without resistance and began to trust me more.
For me, dressage on the trail has become a new kind of training—training without walls in the beauty of nature which feeds my soul while freeing me of the rigidity and perfectionism that often plagues me in the arena.
Have you ever dreamed about riding along the ocean coast? It’s been a dream of mine, and it came true—but there was a catch. I had to ride in a Marti Gras parade on a horse that had never been in one.
In January I had a week free before beginning my new job and learned that Jennie Jackson was training at Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center near Mobile, Alabama. So I took a spontaneous four-day trip South to briefly escape the arctic blast.
“Make sure you stay through Saturday,” Jennie said, “so that you can ride the ocean coast and in the Dauphin Island Marti Gras parade.”
Ocean coast? Wow! Not only would I be Jennie’s working student and ride several Tennessee walking horses at various stages of training each day, but I would be riding the ocean coast—a dream come true!
I didn’t realize how special this opportunity was until I arrived. Dauphin Island only allows horses on the beach once a year and that’s only for horses that are trailered in for their Marti Gras parade.
Speaking of Marti Gras, Like most people, I thought Marti Gras was an annual event exclusive to New Orleans. Turns out Marti Gras originated in Mobile, Alabama and is celebrated for several weeks throughout the South until Lent begins.
On the third day of riding with Jennie, I met Abbie, a six-year-old Tennessee walking horse mare who reminded me of my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. Abbie would be the horse I’d ride on the beach and in the parade. Neither she nor I had ever ridden the ocean coast or in a parade, so I did my best to establish trust and team work.
Abbie and I took a nice trail ride with one of the boarders while Jennie taught lessons. We rode up and down hills, alongside a beautiful aqua marine lake with rust colored sand, through the woods, over felled trees, and through creeks. Back at the Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, Abbie and I negotiated their extensive trail obstacle course . I felt like we had connected well.
The next morning a group of us trailered to Dauphin Island through the grey skies and rain. Thankfully the sun broke through the clouds for our beach ride and parade.
The first one in the ocean was Jennie Jackson and her famous stallion Champagne Watchout. He LOVES the water and gave the rest of the horses confidence to step into the wavy shoreline. In no time we were flat walking the ocean coast. It wasn’t as romantic as I had pictured in my mind—galloping carefree through the water in a long flowing gown—but it was FUN!
Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center fosters a community of wonderful people who enjoy a variety of disciplines with their gaited horses: dressage, trail riding, competitive trail obstacles, jumping and cross country, parades, mounted patrol, and more.
After our beach ride, our group dressed up in purple, green and gold, adorned in beads, and rode four miles along the city streets to the beginning of the parade route.
Thanks to Abbie and the great group of people from Amazing Gaits Equestrian Center, I not only rode on the ocean coast, but I also rode eight miles through cheering crowds, horns, loud music and flying beads and couldn’t stop smiling the entire time!
When my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana was four years old, I took her to her first gaited dressage clinic with Bucky Sparks. I was so excited to be there and soak in all I could in beginning our gaited dressage journey.
I love Bucky’s teaching philosophy, because he blends traditional dressage with practical elements of natural horsemanship.
Most of the time Makana stands perfectly still for me to get on, but not when she is nervous or tense. When my lesson time came I literally had a panic attack before the auditors, because every time I put my foot in the iron, Makana would walk off. I was so frightened.
Thanks to Bucky, he showed me a profoundly helpful tip that worked that day and has helped me every time Makana doesn’t want to stand for me to get on.
How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand:
1. Teach the horse to flex their nose to the side by drawing one rein to the saddle. Reward the horse by releasing as soon as the horse gives. Relaxation is what is the goal, not making the horse flex. Signs of relaxation include a lowering of the head and neck and when the horse licks its lips and chews.
If the horse has tension in the poll, neck or shoulder, address these areas individually to release the tension before expecting a soft and relaxed flex to the side.
2. Once the horse understands how to flex to the side and is soft and relaxed in doing so, then flex and release the horse a few times until the horse chews and lowers its head and neck.
3. Then flex the horse to the saddle and keep the horse flexed while repositioning the mounting block and get on. Then release the flex as a reward and encourage the horse to remain standing.
While I was at the clinic my horse kept walking off while in a flexed position. Bucky said, “You can’t make a horse stand.” Don’t punish the horse. Just remain calm to encourage relaxation, keep the horse flexed and gently follow the horse around. He said, “Pretty soon the horse will discover it is a lot easier to stand while being flexed than to walk around being flexed.” Bucky was right. It didn’t take long and as soon as my horse stopped, I repositioned the mounting block, got on, and released the flex. Then we moved on to the gaited dressage lesson.
This tip worked for me at the clinic and continues to work for me each time my horse doesn’t stand when I try to get on.
Video: How to get on the horse that doesn’t want to stand
It was our first 75-degree spring day after a long winter. I couldn’t wait to get Makana, my naturally gaited Walking horse mare, saddled for an afternoon ride.
I had thought that the gale-force winds would be our greatest riding challenge as I negotiated Makana past the disco tree dancing to and fro at the corner of the arena. I had no idea we’d be riding 100 yards from our new neighbor’s artillery range practice, plus enduring a steady stream of overzealous motorcyclists roaring by!
The frenzied sights and sounds gave us plenty of opportunity to practice riding bio-mechanic techniques I have learned from Mary Wanless that helped me maintain a secure riding position each time my explosive horse reacted to unexpected gun fire, thundering motors, and swaying bushes. Among Mary’s riding tactics include breathing deep into my stomach, bearing down of my internal anatomy to lower my center of gravity, holding my weight in my inner thighs to distribute my weight across my horse’s back instead of my weight resting on my horse’s spine, and pressing my fists forward toward the bit instead of pulling back.
The distractions challenged me to practice what I learned from Larry Whitesell about becoming a trusted leader. Whenever my horse got tense, nervous, and distracted it was my job to lead her back to balance and relaxation, and while doing she became a safer horse to ride. The best way to lead Makana back to balance and relaxation is through many transitions and lateral exercises.
So I practiced the suppling and lateral exercises I learned from Jennie Jackson and Outrageous, the gaited dressage school master I rode while I was at the March 2015 Dressage as Applied to the Gaited Horse Clinic in Tennessee. Lateral exercises, such as pivot the fore, shoulder in, and haunches in break up tension, lead to balance and relaxation, and improve the communication between me and my horse. As Makana realized that I was helping her find balance and relaxation through this harried situation, she learned to trust me more as a reliable leader.
In addition to riding bio-mechanics and leading my horse back to balance and relaxation with suppling exercises, we also practiced what I’ve been learning from the Philippe Karl Classical Dressage DVD series regarding the separation of the rein and leg aids, riding my horse into balance, and encouraging Makana to open and close her mouth, salivate and swallow by making my connection with the less sensitive bars of her mouth instead of from tongue pressure. These elements help to produce relaxation in the jaw and poll which help to produce a relaxed body which makes for a more trainable horse.
Although it wasn’t the joyous and relaxing spring ride I had hoped for, it was a successful milestone for me and my naturally gaited Walking horse Makana. I faced my riding fears, trusted the skills my mentors have imparted, remembered to breath, (prayed a bunch that I didn’t get shot by stray bullets), and managed to work Makana through the distractions in real time. We managed to end our ride with quality flat walk possessing good rhythm, balance, over stride, and impulsion.
I believe that riding fear is very common, and if you struggle with it, I certainly relate with you.
After a few scary falls in my early twenties, I became gripped with uncontrollable and paralyzing riding fear to the point of hyperventilation. The fear controlled me because I felt out of control whenever my horse did something that MIGHT result in me falling off and getting hurt again. I only felt safe riding in an indoor arena with no distractions on a calm day riding to the left at a walk.
I faced a cross roads: give up riding horses, my passion, or meet this fear head on. Thankfully the latter won out!
During the course of the last 26 years, I have developed a theory about spooky horses and nervous riders which is based upon my plight with riding fear, coupled with the people (and my faith) who have made a difference in helping me manage it. Most helpful to me are a blend of teachings from these great mentors: Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer who have taught me how to become a trusted leader, Jennie Jackson who has taught me gaited dressage and riding confidence, and Mary Wanless who has taught me a secure riding position.
My theory begins with this: I don’t believe that there are bomb-proof horses. I think some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider will heighten a horse’s reactivity. I’ve seen it dozens of times when an owner turns over a spooky horse to a clinician and the horse relaxes as soon as the clinician takes over.
My husband proves it to me each time I lose my focus and struggle with my naturally gaited Walking horse when she spooks at a swaying bush on a windy day. My darling husband hops on and in a matter of minutes he’s riding by the disco bush without a care. I’ve had hundreds of dressage lessons over the last 27 years and he’s had a handful. So how does he do it?
For starters I believe that God brought horses into my life to mirror my soul and help me get in touch with what’s really going on. I used to run to horses as an escape from a rough day only to have had the worst ride of my life. Over the years God has used horses to teach me about myself and lean on Him as my Source of Life. From time to time I lose sight of this and horses continue to humble me and keep my priorities in order. My faith has given me life purpose, meaning, identity, and the courage to persevere and not give up.
Secondly is the leadership I convey to my horse which I have learned from Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. My Walking horse mare tends to be reactive to noise and sudden movement. How I react to her makes all the difference. When I maintain myself as a trusted leader by calmly bringing her back to balance and relaxation and redirecting her attention through transitions every few steps (walk, halt, rein back, walk, shoulder in, etc.), that’s when we are successful. BUT when I react to what she MIGHT do, irrational fear springs up in me, I tense up, make a high pitch scream, and pull on the reins (something like the top photo), and it only exacerbates the nervousness in my horse.
Most recently God has aligned my path with gaited dressage master Jennie Jackson. She is the only person in history who has trained and shown a Tennessee walking horse to the highest levels of dressage with her naturally gaited stallion Champaign Watchout. I am honored to have brought her to my state for two years in a row for intensive lessons which have catapulted me and my naturally gaited mare into a fearlessly forward moving flatwalk in connection. Jennie has challenged me to confidently ride through the storms, not react to them, and train myself to replace a high-pitched scream for a low growl. These tips have increased my riding confidence and have reduced my mare’s spookiness.
Finally, developing a secure and balanced riding position builds rider confidence like none other. Right after facing my cross roads in 1988, I began studying riding bio-mechanics from Mary Wanless when she published her first book, The Natural Rider. This book addresses riding fear in a way that makes sense to me.
Since then I have purchased Mary’s Ride With Your Mind DVD series, several of her other books, and have audited her clinics whenever she comes to my region. I was fortunate enough to have ridden at one of her clinics three years ago. Mary brought the book and DVD learning to real-time application. She taught me the importance of aligning my external anatomy, breathing deep into my stomach, and the isokinetic effort of bearing down my internal anatomy and sealing my seat and thighs alongside the saddle for a more secure position while distributing my body weight more comfortably along the horse’s back. Instead of fixing the horse, she challenged me to become aware of my riding position to fix myself which naturally restores my horse’s way of going.
Mary’s riding bio-mechanics have taught me a more secure and balanced riding position. Because of this I am better able to confidently ride through spooks. As a result, there is less fear in me and I produce less reactive fear in my horse. This translates into less overall spooks and a more harmonious riding relationship with my horse.
So what is my darling husband’s secret to calmly riding my mare by the disco bush? I think he is deeply grounded in his priorities, he presents trusted leadership with the horse, and a naturally balanced riding position. If the horse were to spook, he wouldn’t get rattled by all that the horse MIGHT do. (In fact, his mind doesn’t even go there.) His secure position would keep him in the saddle, he would bring the horse back to balance and relaxation, and the horse would look to him as the trusted leader.
The example between my husband and I riding the same horse within minutes of each other with the same conditions and completely different outcomes reinforces my theory: Some horses are more reactive than others and a fearful rider heightens a horse’s reactivity.
If you struggle with riding fear, hang in there and persevere. I’m sure glad that I did. My struggle with debilitating fear didn’t disappear overnight. But today I enjoy showing my naturally gaited Walking horse at open schooling dressage shows, trail riding, team penning, sorting cows, endurance races, jumping courses, cross country, and trail obstacles.
Fear no longer controls my life—thank God—I am FREE!